Current Radiological Protection Paradigm Costs Lives and Undermines Climate Efforts

Current nuclear energy regulations are driven by fear rather than science increasing potential health impacts from radiological incidents.

(King’s College London) – Radiation remains one of the most feared natural processes that humankind is exposed to on a daily basis. Current regulations are driven by radiophobia rather than science and paradoxically increases potential health impacts from radiological incidents. By continuing to support the use of the Linear No-Threshold model and its regulatory offspring, the ALARA (As Low As Reasonably Achievable) principle, the impacts of nuclear power incidents are exacerbated. Radiophobia continues to play a significant role to the communities around Chernobyl and Fukushima, with considerable health impacts. Furthermore, LNT undermines efforts for rapid decarbonisation of the energy system, by rendering nuclear power a policy non-grata.

Radiation is everywhere. Yet, life has emerged and thrives in environments constantly exposed to ionising particles. Radiation is one of the most feared natural phenomena, intimately linked in the popular imagination with cancer and death[1]. It is unfortunate and perhaps ironic, then, that our current radiological protection regulatory paradigm unjustifiably increases public anxiety about radiation and has caused detrimental effects in accident situations [2-4].

This current paradigm, known as ALARA (As Low As Reasonably Achievable) derives its scientific justification from the Linear No-Threshold (LNT) model. The LNT, in turn, assumes that any radiation exposure increases the likelihood of cancer linearly [5]. From the tragedies at Hiroshima and Nagasaki we learned that radiation in acute, high doses indeed induces a linear increase in risk [6]. But the doses relevant to nuclear power, however, are significantly smaller, below exhibited threshold levels.

LNT emerged before the extent of cellular repair mechanisms were understood, and represents a prime case of politicised science: influential scientists (e.g. Nobel Laureate H. J. Muller) cherry-picking evidence to support their claims [7-9]. This, in turn, helped entrench LNT within the regulatory environment worldwide. Since then, a broad literature has emerged undermining the scientific basis of LNT/ALARA [10-12]. Despite this evidence LNT remains hegemonic politically and culturally, as seen in the case of the DOE’s misconduct in relation to its Low Dose Radiation Research Program [13].

Even if LNT were to be accepted, one must weigh its highly theoretical advantages with the radiophobia that it promotes. As seen in the aftermath of Chernobyl and Fukushima, it is not radiation but rather the fear of it, that was the main driver of negative health impacts [14, 15]. An example of this is the blanket evacuation of people around Fukushima that led to at least 1500 deaths [16] while radiological danger in the majority of evacuated areas remained theoretical.

The stakes couldn’t be higher: the current radiological protection paradigm undermines efforts to combat climate change. Firstly, as Hansen et al (2015) highlights, nuclear is critical for climate change mitigation [17]. Nuclear power has proven that advanced economies can not only decouple economic growth from greenhouse gas emissions, but also decarbonise. Sweden and France are prime examples of this [18]. Secondly, an unintended side effect of excessive nuclear caution is the harmful substitutes, for reliable nuclear power, such as coal, as noted by Severnini (2017) in a recent study published in Nature [19].

Replacing an ingrained, institutionalised regulatory paradigm is hard going. Early signs of change can be seen; in 2005 the French Academy of Science rejected LNT in favour of a threshold model [20]. In 2010 the Health Physics Society challenged, albeit to a lesser extent, the validity of LNT at levels below 50 mSv/year [21]. Until LNT is removed from the regulatory frameworks, however, radiophobia will continue to claim lives.

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